Thanks to Christine Higgins for today's post about the narrative poem. Her poetry chapbook, Threshold, is due out later this month (April 2013) from Finishing Line Press; it will be available on-line through Amazon. Ms. Higgins is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars. She has been a McDowell Colony Fellow and has been the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Award. Her work has appeared in numerous print journals and on-line in Red Booth Review and in Hospital Drive.
The Sometimes Maligned Narrative Poem
I attended graduate school after a long stint in the working world. I had graduated from college with a degree in Fine Art. I loved the visual arts: expression through color, form, and image. Still, I was not a gifted painter.
In my first graduate writing class, when I was over thirty years of age, my workshop poem was on the top of the pile, and the first thing a younger classmate said of it as way of critique was, “This poem is denotative, and all poems should be connotative.” I had a vague notion of the definition of these terms, but I remember thinking, fat lot of good that will do me in revision.
I think what my young friend meant was that my language was flat, too literal, and that for him, the poem did not rise from the page and reveal some great universal truth of deep emotional reverberation. That good poems are the expression of ideas, and readers “know” what you intended through your use of heightened language. Knowing me, my poem probably included some cows, and a Dairy Queen, and making love in the backseat of a Volkswagen.
I like to write narrative poems. Narrative poems have a teller and a tale. That’s it—that’s the definition—the oral tradition of poetry committed to papyrus or paper. I come from a family of storytellers—Irish on both sides, only here in America two generations back, so lots of good stories from the old country.
I also have an eye that works like a camera. It fixates on certain images and it captures them the way a camera preserves an image on film.
Years ago, when asked to describe the origin of one of my narrative poems, I said my father was my muse. On a summer day, he is out in his small garden behind the house, and he brings in a white garlic bulb with lavender hues and a fat slug that has been feasting on the tomatoes. He opens his hand to show me. I am an adult when he does this. As a photographer himself, he understands the beauty of looking.
My mind does this “recording” of events--I easily remember sounds, scents, and the memory of touch—I like re-living things, even painful or sad things that have surprised me. My “mind’s eye” has recorded the color of the leaves, the mud on my sneakers, how the moon hung low in the sky. I like to pile these things into a poem—and instead of telling a feeling—I try to let the compilation of details speak for the feeling. The “I” of the poem, is no longer me at this point, but a character who stands in for me, and for my reader I hope.
If you have done an exercise like writing a description of a photograph, you will know what I mean. You look very carefully and record the details--the fold in the garment of the woman’s dress, the overturned watering can, the lost look in the woman’s eyes, the broken button on the child’s sweater. You tell the story of that moment when the subjects posed, and the objects convey or “portend” as they might in fiction, but instead of prose, you write these lines with measure for emphasis. You work with restraint; you hold back on anything lofty and let the usual, the every woman’s language take center stage.
Richard Blanco, who composed and read the poem, “One Today” for President Obama’s inauguration said in a recent interview that before he devoted himself to writing poetry, he had studied and worked as an engineer, adding that the two vocations were similar for writing a poem was like constructing a room for someone to enter into. For me, the narrative poem constructs with the material of language and invites the reader in to have a look around.